Where to Work?: Local Vs. International Companies

By: Emilio Piriz

Do you currently work in a local or foreign company? How would you define the work environment at your firm?

Ky: I currently work for a foreign company. I feel comfortable with the environment as it favours transparency and open communication, besides training and focused development.

local foreignImage source: vietnamnet.vn

Duong: I am at a local company. [The] work environment is friendly and they are flexible about time, given that I finish my tasks for the day.

When you look for a job, what are the key qualities you’re looking for in a company? Do you find these are met more often in international or local companies?

Ky: Democratic leadership, attractive C&B (compensation and benefits) packages, learning and development opportunities. International firms seem to offer these more often.

Duong: First, the company’s business should be of my interest. Second, professional and human relationships among the staff should be good. Last but not least, time flexibility since I have a family and many things to take care of for them. Both firms (local and foreign) may satisfy the first and second criteria; however, Vietnamese companies tend to meet the third one more easily.

Do you believe that understating the local culture is an important aspect to the working environment in Vietnam? What hurdles do you think expatriates face when working in domestic firms or with Vietnamese?

Ky: Sure. Understanding the local culture and responding to it with an open mind is a huge advantage for expats who want to work well with Vietnamese, especially when dealing with people from Ha Noi and the North.

I believe language is one of the biggest hurdles that expats face, notably in local firms where not all employees can communicate in English or other foreign languages.

local foreignImage source: amec.com.vn

Duong: Yes, grasping the local culture is really important. If an expat adopts an individualistic attitude, it will be difficult for him/her to understand, be understood and integrate into a Vietnamese group.

Being group-oriented doesn’t simply mean hanging out or having beers together, but instead supporting others when they face difficulties (when a colleague is sick for example).

Moreover, if an expat doesn’t speak Vietnamese (which happens quite often), it will hard for him/her to deeply understand both local people and culture. While speaking Vietnamese (even the minimum) might be a great advantage, many expats look for excuses in order to avoid learning the language. Therefore, the circle of people with whom they end up working/communicating/making friends becomes limited and so does their understanding of local life.

Are team building activities any different between local and foreign companies? Do you often hang out with co-workers after working hours? If so, do you engage more with Vietnamese or expats?

Ky: Foreign firms tend to have more team building activities along the year (they usually host them on special dates such as Christmas, Women’s Day, New Year, etc.). They are usually focused on staff management. On the other hand, these activities are seen as bonuses from the Labour Union in local companies.

I don’t usually hang out with my colleagues after work. If I do, I prefer hanging out with Vietnamese as we can chit chat in a more comfortable way, plus we match lifestyles so we all like going to local restaurants and coffee shops. My foreign friends tend to go to lounges, bars or clubs where other foreigners go.

Duong: While foreign firms seem to have more adventurous and sportive activities, the staff at Vietnamese companies often expect more time to sit together and learn more about each other.

I used to hang out with my coworkers, but not anymore due to my children. Undoubtedly, those who go out with coworkers after working hours are often single.

If a company employs both local and foreign workers, what kind of HR practices could possibly create an ideal working environment?

Ky: [A] Fair evaluation system, [a] result-oriented environment, frequent feedback and [a] coaching culture.

Duong: HR departments should create more opportunities for team members to talk and be heard. For a company that employs both local and foreign workers, the HR department should definitely pay more attention to communication among team members due to cultural differences/particularities. Again, this [requires] a lot of listening and talking.

local foreignImage source: usay.edu.vn

What are the major pros and cons of working in local companies versus international ones?

Ky: It’s hard to come up with the pros of local companies once you have experienced both working environments. I am now interested in multinational firms since learning and growing are priorities for my career at the moment. I feel like international corporations offer more room for [development] as well as exploring new fields.

Duong: For local companies, I see time flexibility as a major perk. If a family issue arises, my co-workers don’t hesitate to ‘cover my back’ or even help me with due work. Furthermore, colleagues become a family when relationships flow. They take care of each other and even worry about each other’s family . Sure, it’s not like that all the time, relations can also be very bad in Vietnamese companies.

As for the cons, I need to understand that my colleagues have family issues as well and I have to be less demanding about their quality of work, or simply do their job when they are absent.

For foreign firms, you just need to focus on results; if they are good, then things are great. I see that as a pro. On the flip side, you don’t often find ‘close’ relationships as in Vietnamese companies.

Have you noticed any major differences in management styles between local and international firms?

Ky: The biggest difference in management styles is the coercive style in local companies versus a more democratic one in foreign firms.

In local corporations, there seems to be a king who holds the power and makes all decisions; meanwhile, associates in foreign companies have their own voice and are empowered to deliver good results.

local foreignImage source: zone8.vn

Duong: In local firms, the HR department knows all the ins and outs of me (for instance, they have the phone number of my parents or know about their health). In the institution where I work, the management board visits the family of those who have lost a loved one. In international companies, they know when I check in and check out and whether I reached my target last month.

Foreign investment usually goes hand in hand with an increase in foreign labour. As Vietnam continues to attract more foreign investment, will Western practices take over the Vietnamese way of working?

Ky: Due to foreign investment and the rise of IT, many people say that we now live in a ‘flat world’. It is true that companies in Vietnam are catching up fast with trends in the market. Globalisation comes with both pros and cons, but it is necessary for development. Western practices help to progress in management and leadership capabilities but I am not sure about them taking over the Vietnamese way of working, especially in local firms.

Duong: Of course, the work environment in Vietnam will become more globalised. I believe so. In the end, this is not so bad given that the Vietnamese are able to maintain the ‘human’ aspect in their relationships.


Tran Thi Thuy Duong: A lawyer who specialises in International Trade Law, she currently teaches at HCMC Law University.

Mai Chinh Ky: Experienced in Corporate Communications and B2B Marketing, he is the Communication Manager (Employer Branding) at Coca-Cola Beverages Vietnam Ltd.

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